I was born in Saigon on January 17, 1949 and had three sisters (one passed away at childbirth) and four brothers.
My whole family was Catholic and I attended a Catholic school taught by the De La Salle brothers. One brother particularly stuck in my mind – Brother Aimee.
That means “beloved”. He was so lovely. He organised youth activities and after school he taught Catechism very gently and very delicately.
That touched every heart. He lived very humbly, like a poor person and loved children.
At the age of 14, I joined the De La Salle Congregation although I must confess I didn’t know anything about vocations.
It was just a natural call to be like that one brother whom I loved the best.
Before entering the priesthood as a late vocation, I had been a De La Salle Brother for 40 years. I joined in 1963 and, on the Feast of the Assumption in 1975, I made my final vow and then I went to prison.
When the Communists took over South Vietnam they tried to take all the monasteries and buildings to do with religion.
In my case, we were put in jail along with the other three big Congregations: Dominican, Redemptorists and Salesians of Don Bosco – we all went together.
They confiscated our monasteries and accused us of attempting a coup against the government. No proof, no evidence was given.
In jail, it was strictly forbidden to learn any foreign language, to talk about religion or to do any services associated with religion. Otherwise, you would be put in the dungeon.
When I first came to jail I had two years in a dark cell completely alone.
My hands were handcuffed behind my back and they put shackles around my ankles.
Until now I don’t know how I survived it other then it was with God’s help. I kept my mind open by remembering every story I had read including Bible stories as well as novels, then praying a little bit and after that I continued to learn and conjugate the verbs in French.
The worst part of that period was the loneliness. The cell was completely dark. Except at midnight when they woke you up for interrogation.
It was terrible. Then I realised I had friends. Rats came and crawled on my chest.
I accepted that and said, “Hello friends, stay here”. And the next day a lot came.
Then I made little friends out of the cockroaches. They were everywhere. Never mind. I wasn’t lonely anymore.
In my first week in prison, the interrogator said to me, “If you say you don’t believe in God, I will release you. Just say it in your mouth. If you still believe, we won’t know”.
I thought I would be like St Peter. Peter denied Jesus and He forgave Him. I tried to say it but after one week I realised that I could not deny Him even in my mouth.
I was tempted to hesitate for the first time in my life but I found the strength to affirm my faith when I saw the interrogation room stained with the blood of all the other prisoners there on the wall.
I was shaken and suddenly I remembered the blood of Jesus – on His cross was the same blood. I said, “No, I cannot make Him shed blood again.”
So I said to the interrogator, “No. I will never say that.” That was my first conversion.
When I moved to the common rooms there were hundreds of prisoners. I organised story telling every night for two hours and they called me “Cinema.”
For the next eight years that I was in jail I tried to tell them every detail I remembered and sometimes I would imagine and invent.
When I told a story they would give me a bit of sugar to give me energy to go on and all who had received a gift would share it with the Cinema.
My family did not know where I was until I had spent seven years in jail and when they found me they sent me a piece of sugar – that’s all because that was all they could spare.
The best story I told to convert all the non-Catholics to Catholic was Quo Vadis. I had seen the movie and I had already read the book in French so it was easy to tell the story in Vietnamese.
It took me eight months to tell the story. After that I found out that some prisoners came to the priests to be baptised. That was very moving.
I was sentenced in prison for 13 years. After I stayed for over ten years I had Amnesty.
Those that had less than three years left of their sentence were released.
God said, “That’s enough for you.” That was 1998. I have done martial arts since I was eight years old and have a black belt in Karate, Judo, Tae-Kwon-Do, Aikido and Kendo and the government needed instructors so that was what I became.
Then my Vietnamese Karate group was invited to attend the Olympic Games in Sydney 2000.
I was the coach of a team of 10 athletes. We went to Australia in 1998 for an intensive ‘Martial Art Training Course’ preparing for the Games and, after the Olympics, everyone escaped to begin a new life in Australia, including me.
That is why I have my name on the blacklist of the Vietnamese government.
They accused me of organising the escape but after the training course everyone escaped privately. How could I come home alone to go to jail again?
After several attempts, I discovered with my limited English that I could not teach in the Catholic schools of the De La Salle Brothers.
I realised many Vietnamese immigrants would be in the same position with their English and I decided the best way I could help them was in the Sacramental ministry, Reconciliation and all the pastoral ministries.
That’s why I went to St Charles’ seminary to become a priest and sat for an interview with Bishop Don Sproxton and the staff.
They must have looked at me and thought I was too old at the age of 53!! But they accepted me and, in June 2003, I left my Congregation to join St Charles’ Seminary in Guildford.
On May 12, 2006 I was ordained a priest by Archbishop Barry Hickey and was the last one to be ordained at the old St Mary’s Cathedral before it was renovated. I am happy to be the old man ordained in the old Cathedral.
I served at Lockridge Parish, Port Kennedy Parish and now I am an Assistant Priest at the Vietnamese Community Catholic Centre. The Parish Priest is Rev Fr Huynh Nguyen.
I must confess that I learnt magic tricks whilst I was in prison. A lot of prisoners are experts at pick-pocketing. Now I can open any lock (I couldn’t escape from prison because they gave us nothing made in metal, only plastic).
I used to know 400 card tricks when I was a prisoner and now I still remember over 40. I used my magic tricks with cards as a way to connect with children in my ministry.
It is easy to perform one trick and then they stay and listen to me.
I think God didn’t call me once. Instead, I like the definition that God calls you in every stage of your life and you respond at each stage.